As a young leader I jumped into leadership feet first. I was first given the title of Director, and since it was a new role I didn’t initially have positions reporting to me.
I thought leadership was copacetic.
Then I began to gain positions. People joined my team. Leadership hit me like a ton of “what-just-happened” bricks.
While I knew there were some difficult components to leadership (insert crucial conversations and annual evaluations here) it became clear to me that there are four difficult facts about leadership that aren’t routinely shared:
Leadership isn’t about tasks. When I first started as a Director I was the only person on my team, so 100% of my day was spent performing tasks. I felt highly comfortable with this arrangement since it was all that I knew up to that point. After hiring my first teammate the percentage of tasks dropped to about 75% of my day. The other 25% was spent answering questions, providing guidance, working, and planning together. As more people joined my team, less and less of my day was available for completing tasks. This became highly difficult because I still had daily tasks on my plate, yet I had less and less time to complete them. As much as I wanted to have an open door policy, I became increasingly grumpy when teammates would drop by with a question or idea. When someone would enter my office I had to physically pry my fingers away from the keyboard and mentally tell myself to smile, make eye contact, and try desperately not to let my frustration show at being interrupted yet again. I intellectually wanted them to feel free to ask questions and share ideas, however I didn’t have time to hear them because of tasks. I began to close my door, which allowed me to get tasks done, but created a barrier to open communication. I couldn’t seem to find a win-win.
Leaders can’t know everything. A lot of pressure is put on leaders to be the end all in everything. There is an unspoken expectation (real or not) that leaders must have their ducks in a row and also be intimately familiar with everyone else’s ducks. Anyone who has been a leader can attest how often their ducks go AWOL at precisely the wrong time or how fuzzy and fussy other people’s ducks can be when you aren’t working with them every day. I was not immune to this pressure. While I may not have visibly crumbled under the perceived intimidation of feeling as though I had to know everything in my sphere of influence from the moment I took on the title of leader, I can guarantee you my thoughts were a merry-go-round of uncertainty, self-deprecation, and cortisol inducing sprints of mental anguish. What would people think when this young whippersnapper didn’t know her stuff right out of the gate? Would they think I wasn’t worthy of being a leader? Would I lose my power? I felt the need to prove myself, especially as a young woman in an older man’s world, and spent copious agonizing moments trying to do so.
Leadership is isolating. Even if you move up through the ranks and have friends in the office, once you move into leadership things change. You take on the role of team protector, galvanizer, and whipping person all at the same time. You take on the extra weight when your team is short staffed. The final decision is always yours, regardless how much input you receive. Going to lunch with a teammate is viewed differently than when you were peers. Unless you’re at the top of an organization, you’re not only working with those who report to you, but you are also up-managing to your superiors. It’s the “middle of the road” lot in life that has serious pitfalls on either side. So you frequently walk it alone.
Leadership never ends. Once you are a leader, you are never not a leader. Leadership is a way of life. Leadership is like a switch that once flipped cannot be reset. The constant barrage of requests and needs from the team and others who need a leader can be exhausting, even if you’re not one of the 56.8% introverts in the United States population (https://www.themyersbriggs.com/en-US/Connect-with-us/Blog/2020/January/World-Introvert-Day-2020). I find frequently the requests and needs are of a negative and difficult nature, which require more energy than standard task completion. The first few years of leadership were spent pouring everything into being a “good leader” and I realized over time it required more and more work to reach the same results. My reserves weakened and my nerves frayed. Leadership never let up.
These hard facts are true for many leaders, if not most. If you identified with any of these experiences, I feel you. It is no fun. Any one of these reasons can cause “depression Sundays” as you contemplate returning to work on Monday.
Leadership can be a real life sucker.
The good news is this doesn’t have to be your leadership reality. Stay tuned for part two of this post to learn tactics and address these difficult leadership states.